Friday 13th is the day after the General Election, but there is no problem getting an audience tonight, even if some of us are a little tired after a long night of TV watching. The Usher Hall is packed and the reason is Scotland’s biggest classical music star, violinist Nicola Benedetti, playing Sibelius’s Violin Concerto.
The concert begins with an unusual work, a cheerful overture by the great Russian composer Shostakovich. He is better known for his big gloomy symphonies or his challenging operas like Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk, which earned the wrath of Stalin. Perhaps the fact that Stalin had died the year before this work in 1954 freed up the composer to be joyful, but also the work was commissioned by the Bolshoi Orchestra to celebrate the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The story goes that the conductor of the Bolshoi had forgotten to commemorate the anniversary. In those immediate post-Stalin years that could have been a problem, so he rushed round to Shostakovich’s flat to get him to compose something straight away and the composer obliged within two days. It was a great success and is now used world-wide as a festive overture. It is a bright, breezy work with lots of brass, lots of speed and lots of fun – a perfect overture.
The orchestra is then rearranged in a smaller format with less brass under the baton of young German conductor Christian Reif, who has been making a name for himself in the US as resident conductor with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. This is his first concert with the RSNO but he appears to be perfectly at home with the orchestra, and very much in tune with Nicola Benedetti in the Sibelius. Benedetti has of course become an international superstar from her origins in Ayrshire and now performs all over the world. Fortunately, she still performs regularly in Scotland.
She tells us before the concert that she hasn’t performed the Sibelius for ten years but there is no sign here of rustiness in her account of what is a very demanding work. Apparently its first outing in 1904 was a disaster as the soloist was unable to meet its challenging demands and Sibelius rewrote it for its premiere in 1905, with Richard Strauss conducting in Berlin. Nicola is clearly totally in control of the work, with no music in front of her. From the lovely soaring beginnings, through long solo sections in the first movement to the wonderful closing movement, it is a tour de force and earns a huge response from the audience.
The concert concludes with another Russian favourite, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which he composed in 1874 as a tribute to his close friend the painter Victor Hartmann. It is a musical account of some of his sketches. Originally written for piano, it was arranged for orchestra by Ravel in 1922. Since then it has become a firm favourite with concert audiences. It begins with a Promenade theme which recurs throughout the work between wonderful humorous accounts of Hartman’s sketches. It also includes elements from Mussorgsky’s operas, such as The Great Gates of Kiev. The RSNO under Christian Reif give it a vivid, colourful performance and we are all revived by the therapy of music from our post- election doldrums.